Dec 16, 2023

Joon restaurant review: The glories and grace of the Iranian kitchen

I’ll get to the pistachio soup and duck fesenjoon — and the talent behind the cooking — in a minute.

First, I want to tell you why I fell for Joon in Vienna, Va., before I even stepped out of the car. At a time when service is taking a serious beating, this new Iranian restaurant puts hospitality on a pedestal. Not only does Joon (Farsi for “life” and a term of endearment) offer valet parking, the amenity is gratis.

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Smiling at my good fortune, I enter the foyer, where I receive a verbal embrace at the host stand and notice that one of the reasons I’m here is holding court at the bar: chef-owner Najmieh Batmanglij, 75, the acclaimed cookbook author. Another woman, who introduces herself as a “hospitality fairy,” leads me to a table in a dining room whose multiple blue accents are a calming contrast to any rush-hour traffic. Water is immediately poured. Drink orders are taken.

The curtain for “life” goes up.

Someone shows up with warm bread and a plate of spreads: crumbled feta and goat cheese, a tapenade made from two kinds of olives, and coins of butter, green with herbs. We rip pieces of the lavash, baked in-house, and make short work of the condiments. Just about anywhere else, you’d be charged for such a gesture. Joon sends bread out to everyone for nothing.

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“It’s a fun way to start a meal,” chef-owner Chris Morgan, 35, later tells me in a telephone conversation. His name might be familiar to chowhounds. Along with Gerald Addison, he previously tended to the open fire at Maydan in Washington and has since become the chief culinary director for the Kitchen Collective, whose six operations include Joon, Pizza Serata and the kebab house Yasmine.

Free parking and bread make good first impressions, but they are far from the only early enticements. Batmanglij (pronounced BAHT-mahn-gleej) sees Joon as a way to showcase more than just the usual suspects from Iran, where she grew up in Tehran and, while fascinated with food, wasn’t allowed by her mother to cook. (School was the priority. Only after she came home with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the United States in 1973 could she enter the kitchen, where her mother began sharing family recipes.)

Joon makes a lovely mash of roasted eggplant, herbs and dates, garnished with fried onions and finished with circles of olive oil and tangy fermented yogurt. For something less expected, settle in with some hot, crescent-shaped turnovers stuffed with ground lamb and pistachios. Dusted with powdered sugar and crushed dried rose petals, the sweet-savory appetizer, sanbuseh, can be traced to a 17th-century Iranian court cookbook.

Sardines represent another novel beginning, a hat tip to the Persian Gulf, where Batmanglij acquired the recipe for her fried sardines from a fisherman. Imported fresh from Spain, the sardines are marinated in vinegar, coriander and cumin, then dredged in spiced flour and fried to a crisp, with sour orange and onions. Batmanglij says an old nickname for Persians was “pistachio-eaters,” so fond were they of the nuts. Her first restaurant in the United States features pistachios, ground and seasoned with cumin and ginger, in a hot soup based on chicken broth that gets tweaked with two Persian wonders: sour orange juice and tart red barberries. Joon is also the uncommon source of spinach borani, a thick yogurt dip elevated with cardamom and cumin.

Morgan and Batmanglij were brought together by investor Reza Farahani, but they first learned about each other years earlier, when Morgan’s mother took one of Batmanglij’s cooking classes and had the teacher sign one of her cookbooks to her son, then a chef in San Francisco who had been exposed to Persian food when his sister was dating an Iranian man. When Morgan returned to work in Washington in 2014, he took a class from Batmanglij, rescuing her by becoming an assistant when her classes grew too large and students overwhelmed her with questions while she was trying to focus on demonstrating six courses. (“She got to show off her personality a bit more,” says Morgan, who adds that his partner likes to dance when she cooks.) The principals’ affection for each other is made clear in conversation. Morgan refers to Batmanglij as “a second mother,” and she calls him her third son.

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The classic Persian pairing of duck and pomegranate sauce originated in Gilan province, where cooks are known to turn it almost black by dropping a horseshoe into the pot, Batmanglij writes in her sweeping 2018 tome, “Cooking in Iran,” for which she traveled throughout the country for the first time since she fled the Iranian Revolution in 1979, gaining access to home cooks and producers without government intervention. The sauce at Joon, a swoon-worthy amalgam of pureed walnuts, warm spices and garlic along with pomegranate molasses, is a thick brown blanket draped over duck legs that barely need a fork to cut them. The entree is more majestic for the accompanying round of steamed rice sporting a saffron-colored top: tahdig, whose prized layer of crisped rice is part of what makes it one of the best tests of a Persian kitchen. Joon aces the whole shebang.

Barramundi is also listed as a khoresh, or stew. The fish, rubbed with turmeric and Aleppo pepper, arrives in a dark-green moat created from fish stock, garlic, cilantro and fenugreek leaves, along with tamarind for pucker. The concert of spicy and sour notes got a round of applause from all takers.

People going to Joon for what they can get at the competition, take note: “Persian food is more than kebabs and rice,” says Batmanglij, who nudges even Persian customers toward her less-common signatures. I’ll be frank. In my experience, kebabs are not a compelling reason to visit this restaurant, where I’ve been served bar kebab (filet mignon) so juiceless I pointed it out to a waiter when he asked me. Morgan says his Persian clientele prefer beef cooked well-done, adding that he would like to offer diners a choice of temperatures. Unfortunately, Joon’s saffron-rubbed Cornish hen kebab, served as part of a combination platter, also proved dry — as has the rice on occasion. The exception is the satisfying kubideh, ropy ground beef (chuck and tenderloin) sweetened with onions and shot through with garlic.

If there are two or more of you, splurge on a whole chicken, fish, duck or lamb shoulder. The last, a Damavand of meat, is feast enough for eight people and incites furious eating. Cured, rinsed and seasoned with a little pantry of spices — turmeric, cinnamon, saffron, sweet-tangy Aleppo pepper — the lamb is cooked overnight at a low temperature and finished with a glaze made with lamb and veal stock and butter. Chewy apricots and sticky dates sweeten the eating, which includes a base of lavash that gains flavor as it absorbs the lamb’s juices. Four of us barely put a dent in the eight or so pounds of roast beast, the leftovers of which were divided and carried out in bags that made us feel like Brink’s guards transporting gold.

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The most refreshing conclusions are sour cherry sorbet spiced with cinnamon and a round, housemade waffle cone sandwich filled with ice cream infused with saffron and rose water, a fragrance woven into the everyday routines of Persians, where it freshens mosques, makeup and mustaches, Batmanglij writes in her 1986 opus “Food of Life.”

While attractive, Joon feels like the suburban restaurant it is, a little too big and bright and noisy — “a place you’d find in Dubai,” said a dining companion. Carved screens, curtains and the occasional fringed lamp create a dash of intimacy, however, as does the service. You can count on general manager Said Haddad to introduce your cocktail with a flourish (a dusting of black lime on a daiquiri is aptly described as resembling “a galaxy”) and select a wine to both flatter your meal and fit your budget.

The bill, which lets diners decide how much to tip, offers suggested gratuities based on the price before taxes. Like the ice water left on the table, it’s another nice gesture in a restaurant that aims to do things differently, and often succeeds in its mission.

8045 Leesburg Pike, Suite 120 (The Shops at Fairfax Square), Vienna, Va. 571-378-1390. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Prices: dinner appetizers $11 to $17, main courses $24 to $55, shareable platters $65 to $190. Sound check: 78 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms.